Preventing Burnout as a Climate Advocate

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Climate work can feel heavy and hard. This training is an opportunity to learn about burnout, how to prevent it, and to practice a few of the steps that can help with recognizing and improving your own experience. This training moves into a deeper exploration of how to prevent burnout, specifically addressing the idea of resilience and how deepening our personal resilience can help us navigate and prevent burnout for ourselves.

TOC and Guide Section
What Is Burnout?

Current events make the conditions ripe for many climate advocates to experience burnout. 

According to the Australian Psychological Society: “Burnout is a result of stress accumulated over a long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding.”

Burnout can be caused by a combination of enduring situational stressors, high expectations and feelings of pressure. 

There are a number of aspects of the work we do to address climate change that can make us more vulnerable to burnout, including 

  • an awareness of the complexity and global nature of climate change
  • a deep sense of urgency and overwhelm by the issue itself
  • carrying a burden of knowledge that humanity needs to take action and the consequences if we don’t
  • having an unrelenting commitment to making a difference
  • the slow pace of progress that we tend to see, in part based upon negativity bias…meaning that our brains have a tendency to notice the negative
  • and working against resistance, against those who seem to be more motivated by issues and values that keep us from implementing big effective solutions.

Exploring and Warning Signs of Burnout:

It can be tempting for many of us as committed climate advocates to lean in harder and turn the other cheek when it comes to warning signs of burnout - there simply isn’t time or opportunity to take a break or give up, right? But, self-awareness is often our first step to making big changes, including infusing our lives with enough energy to navigate and prevent burnout. So, let’s consider some of the warning signs and see what there is to recognize.

Emotional Signs 

  •  severe upset over trivial matters
  •  feeling guilty for resting / enjoying life
  •  feelings of hopelessness

Cognitive Signs 

  •  challenges in decision-making/focus
  •  growing tendency toward negativity
  •  loss of sense of purpose and energy

Behavioral Signs 

  • imbalance between work, family, play, hobbies
  • difficulty getting up in the morning
  • becoming accident prone

Physiological Signs 

  •  general sense of running on empty
  •  muscle tension
  •  headache, backache
  •  tiredness

So, what can we do to prevent personal climate burnout?  Let’s explore the five steps to personal resilience.

Five Steps to Resilience

There are many approaches and tactics, strategies and unique effective ways for building resilience. It can be helpful to have a framework for where to start and how to deepen resilience, and here are five basic steps for building personal resilience, and ultimately preventing personal burnout:  

  1. Figure out what you need in this moment
  2. Accept that what you need is what you need, free from judgment
  3. Seek help where you need it
  4. Practice meeting your needs
  5. Repeat regularly

Deepen Your Resilience

Let’s explore the positive relationship between burnout and resilience, specifically considering the idea of deepening or strengthening our personal resilience as one of the key ways to keep ourselves from burning out.  But first, let’s be clear on what resilience is, as it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The Bounceback Project defines resilience as:

“Resilience is our ability to bounce back from the stresses of life.”

It’s not about avoiding the stress, but learning to thrive within the stress. In this definition, there is a relationship that is created between stress and thriving. 

At Citizens’ Climate Lobby, we also have a working definition of resilience, which we crafted from a multitude of sources and which reflects the aspects of resilience that feel most important to us as committed climate advocates:

“Resilience helps us stay the course, through the highs and the lows, and bounce forward from challenges.”

Clearly, we live in a world of ups and downs, ins and outs, challenges and ease. When we can bounce forward after initial setbacks from difficulties, we are more likely to avoid burning out.

Step 1. Figure Out What You Need (In The Moment)

And make this a regular thing to check in about with yourself.

This might look like asking yourself at any moment, what do I need right now? Or, how am I feeling? Do I need a break? More sleep? Am I hungry? Thirsty? Do I need a change of scenery or perspective? Social connection? Validation? To feel heard or understood?

Sometimes, and for some of us, the answer is quite obvious - it bubbles right up and into our face, making it quite obvious that there’s too much on our plate, or we’re worried about wildfires, or stressed about a relationship in our life. And with practice, as we grow more intentional about making space to listen for our needs, the answer gets easier to hear.

For some of us, however, or as we’re just beginning to tap into our own experience, it can be hard to hear the answer, once you actually remember to check in with yourself. When the answer is hard to find, it can help to just try something in order to hone in on what exactly would make a difference: go outside; get up and walk around; turn on your favorite music; call a friend; eat a snack; draw or free write; drink some tea or water or beverage of choice. 

The point of trying things at this stage is not necessarily to feel better, though that's always a bonus. Instead, you want to do your best to assess what is really up for you in the moment, what your heart is feeling, what your mind is telling you, what your body is experiencing, wanting or needing. Sometimes the answer is right there, but our thoughts get in the way of us hearing it, so trying different activities can help mix things up.

Step 2: Accepting What You Need

Sometimes, once we actually remember to ask ourselves the question, it can be hard to accept or even hear the answer because we wish or expect the answer to be different — not necessarily so difficult when it comes to things like thirst, but some of us can get pretty judgy about what we need, making it mean all sorts of things about who we are. If you’re tired right now and need sleep or a break, for example, you may get all up in your head about how there’s simply not enough time to sleep or take a break if we’re ever going to address this climate change issue. If you're hungry and need to eat, it’s natural for some of us to get judgy and self-critical about how often we should or shouldn’t eat, and what. 

It’s far too easy for some of us to spin out into larger issues and concerns when we identify a need. Doing that distracts us from meeting the need in the moment, however, which is one of the key steps to building resilience and preventing burnout. The need is the need, at least for now. If you’d like to change that need in the long run, acceptance and recognition will not keep you from working on that (it will actually make it easier and more likely), and you can certainly choose to work on that at some point, but not in the moment when what is needed is acceptance. The task for this moment after identifying your need is to accept it as a need, and nothing else. Sometimes thinking about the love you feel for someone else can help in this process, to just feel into that feeling, and let it be there for yourself.

Step 3: Asking for Help to Meet Our Needs

We are social and communal beings. Our brains are wired to connect with other people, and, therefore, in certain ways we are dependent upon others to help meet our needs (at least some of them). At the same time, we live in a culture in the U.S. that encourages independence and assigns some level of weakness or immaturity around relying on others. 

It’s hard for some of us, then, as beings who need connection and ultimately social acceptance, to lean into something that isn’t as accepted by society: asking for help and relying on others. It’s a balance, though, right? Rely on others too much and we don’t build the skills for independence — which is also a key life skill. Finding the balance can be difficult, but for the moment, see if you can identify those challenges that you are struggling to address on your own — like needing conversation, intimacy or to feel heard, or experiencing tunnel vision, or overwhelm — and ask someone in your life to help you address that need. 

If feeling alone is the need you’re trying to meet, it may help to make a list of people in your life who support and love you, or perhaps reach out to an organization or mental health professional for help creat a support network for yourself. 

Step 4. Practicing Meeting Your Own Needs

This one is huge and can look like all sorts of different things for different people. But it’s also creativity’s playground. The  word “practice” is used for a few reasons. First of all, the idea of practice conveys the idea that we don’t have to get it right. Just practice. Make mistakes. Learn. 

The idea of practice can also convey the idea of regularity — and that’s the key here. Practice meeting your needs with intention, regularly. Once you know what you need, there are all sorts of ways you can meet those needs — especially if you regularly explore other resources to inform, educate and inspire yourself about what’s possible. 

If you need to create more of a boundary between your climate work and the rest of your life, for example, you might choose to turn off your notifications on your climate email account or you might choose to create a climate email account if you don’t yet have one. 

Practice is important because of the deep impact that it has on our brain development. This is something that we highly value in CCL, and it is not only helpful in our lobbying and other advocacy efforts, but also for helping us to stick it out for the long haul.

As Elizabeth Stanley mentions in her fantastic book, Widen the Window:

"Rewiring the brain and body to improve our performance and build resilience requires an integrated training regimen and consistent practice over time. Just as muscle growth and improved cardiovascular functioning requires months of consistent physical exercise. 

There are many practices that we can integrate into our lives, both daily and over the long term, that help us become more resilient and prevent burnout -- many different ways that work for so many different people at different times in their lives. 

There are clearly a number of other practices that we can do in our lives, whether in any particular moment when we’re needing something, or on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to provide more of a foundation or practice in our lives. Some of these include drawing boundaries between our climate work and our personal lives, implementing regular practices that we can do without needing to think about them, like exercise or reading. 

Many of these ideas might seem obvious but can be hard to remember when we’re feeling burned out or overwhelmed - it can be helpful to write out your own list, with ideas that you like or would like to try, and hang it up somewhere that you can see it regularly. It can also be helpful to pick one idea and decide how and when you’d like to integrate it into your life (i.e., to pick a time to end your climate work, or call a friend, or go for a walk outside or deeper into nature).

Step 5. Rinse & Repeat

Regularly repeat the process of assessing, accepting, seeking support and practicing

Take inventory of the above process regularly. Check in with it and with yourself to see how you might fine tune and improve it. Rely on resources which can help mix things up for the brain and pave your way for success.

As humans, we are creatures of habit. There is all sorts of brain research around the benefits of structure and consistency. At the same time, our brains are highly attuned to variation, which keeps things fresh and alive for us. So, though you may have a system in place that’s working for a while, just like a physical workout structure, there’s great benefit to assessing and making changes from time to time. Reading the latest research about resilience or brain plasticity (how our brain continually learns and grows), or asking friends about the practices they do to deal with stress, or making a jar of ideas from which you pick new ideas every so often. Naturally, there are all sorts of ways to create variety, but again, there’s no need to turn over all the soil. Sometimes, just the area below the plant needs to be mixed with fertilizer, as opposed to the entire garden bed.

Next Steps

The CCL Resilience Hub is a one stop spot for all things resilience within CCL, including a short video about resilience, live workshops, recorded and online trainings, and even practices and links to relevant action teams, like the Resilience Building Action team. There is also a Resilience Resources page (which can be found under Support Materials on the right-hand side of the Resilience Hub) that shares key links outside of CCL, including regularly updated resources organized by themes like burnout.

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Skip ahead to the following section(s):
  • (0:00) Intro & Agenda
  • (3:46) Check-in and Warm-up
  • (7:39) Exploring burnout
  • (15:40) Five Steps to Resilience
  • (28:26) Practice Ideas
  • (36:17) Hands-on Practice
  • Tamara Staton
  • Drew Eyerly
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Press play to start the audio (44m 47s)
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Audio Outline
 Skip ahead to the following section(s):
  • (0:00) Intro & Agenda
  • (3:46) Check-in and Warm-up
  • (7:39) Exploring burnout
  • (15:40) Five Steps to Resilience
  • (28:26) Practice Ideas
  • (36:17) Hands-on Practice
  • Tamara Staton
  • Drew Eyerly
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